Monday, August 10, 2009

Michael Santos' "Inside: Life Behind Bars": Book Review

Michael G. Santos: Seattle suburbanite, sentenced to 45 years in federal prison for cocaine trafficking at 23. It's as graphic, brutal, and dispiriting as I'd expected.

It's also well-written, educational, and sobering. Santos completed a B.A. and M.A. in prison but a new warden's blocked inmates from post-graduate education for "security reasons," so his Ph.D. from U Conn (no pun intended) remains on hold. Vowing to make himself better by merit rather than cruelty, Santos after sentencing has tried to inform himself and others in prison and outside of it about the inequities inside. To those who dismiss his revelations as special pleading, he notes cases filed in court that testify to such brutality. To those who sense he's angling for his own time off, he counters that his discipline has largely gained him distrust from his keepers. To those bent on punitive measures, he responds that healing will be found by guiding broken people-- often poor, uneducated, deceitful, conniving, and/or mentally ill-- towards a life better able to be lived straight. For 95%, a life spent one day or twenty years from now alongside the rest of us.

He tries to present despite his limitations to material a full picture of the environment faced by inmates and jailers within a federal penitentiary. He makes no excuses for his crime. He also spares no detail for his guards or his peers. All are treated unflinchingly, as he attempts to reveal the reality that so many romanticize, ignore, perpetrate, and exarcerbate. The problem: we as taxpayers have no way to hold accountable those who profit from the misery of 13.5 million inmates. Their time served does not rehabilitate; policy's now content to humiliate.

Santos provides-- from his own experience-- a bold depiction of the tiered process by which often benign city and usually awful county jails in urban areas lead those once convicted into warehousing at federal prisons; he's been transferred about as many prisoners are, often at the whim of authorities or due to overcrowding. Without gangs or respected inmates to protect you in the hole, it's a hell the weak may not survive. This barbarity may reward law-and-order enforcers, but it warps millions who must capitulate to blackmail, smuggling, prostitution, or thuggery as a ransom.

Santos refused to plea-bargain, and faces his guilt without having ever "sought my own release through the punishment of another." (x) Convicted in 1987, he promised himself to not waste his twenty-five-year stretch. He's often been sort of a jailhouse lawyer for his less-informed peers. Mostly, he studies and writes in the library. He's now at the twentieth prison, at least, nearing the end of his time.

It takes awhile to get used to the structure of his narrative, but it follows his own rise up into the higher-security from the lower, and then back down again, interspersed with the stories he shares and reconstructs in tough dialogue. He has an accurate ear for dialect and slang that enhances the realities he depicts. Consensual sex, failed relationships, white-collar crime, drug smuggling, weapons, prisoner retaliation in protective custody, reform by one "O.G.", and supermax facilities are also covered in topical chapters. These can be a bit uneven, as the personal and the investigative intersperse, but given his narrowed perspective within and his lack of full access to sources, it's worthwhile.

My wife wondered, however, what happens to the royalties he earns from St. Martin's Press for his book; so far I have no clue. A diligent "success strategist" who's determined to help others like himself, his eponymous website sells articles and gives links to his daily blog feed via a resource his wife runs, but I could not find an answer to my wife's question there. His book mentions his imposed restitution-- now required for all felons-- to the tune of two million dollars. I'm not sure how he's going to pay it; his efforts to be a legal advocate, a stock investor via phone calls to his sister, and a Ph.D. in prison studies have all been blocked by his jailers.

Santos tells how since he entered prison, American prison populations have increased four-fold: one in fifteen in this country today doing or having done hard time. This does not count many more in jails or on probation. 800,000 people work inside prisons. It costs us $60 billion to house and feed U.S. prisoners each year. Santos doesn't mention this, but I've heard 80% are incarcerated due to the enforcement of anti-drug laws.

He bases his narrative on what he has heard, seen, corroborated, and cross-referenced to reconstruct as honestly and accurately as his limited access (no wardens or officers agreed ever to help him; nobody can visit him at certain prisons he's been at unless he had a "prior relationship" with the applicant before he was sentenced, which undoubtably narrows his circle of possibilities) can verify. He uses psuedonyms, blurs identifying details, and protects privacy even as he exposes constantly the system that never "corrects" and improves and rewards conforming inmates. Instead, the guards and wardens benefit from keeping inmates as long as possible, as liable to recidivism as will thicken the wallets of those guarding them at often lucrative salaries, and as helpless when they get out as when they entered. "Instead of erecting barriers that separate prisoners from society, they should allow bridges that will allow individuals to work their way to freedom." (283)

Santos remarks how the squeaky wheels, the baddest brutes, the made men get favored in prison. They are coddled more, left in single cells, with better food or nicer jobs, to keep them tamed. The ones who follow the rules, he finds, have no incentive to do so, for by their cooperation their parole will come no nearer, nor will their conditions be improved. Santos' own obedience proves this; by his steady gaze-- he likens his style to a periscope view kept above the surface as he glides like a submarine through choppy waters-- he unsettles many of his keepers. Those who keep a steady course are left, when obeying this regimen, to indifference. His own straight-arrow allegiance has not brought him a diminishment of his time; to the contrary, his unflappable scrutiny of his surroundings earns him suspicion from his jailers, even as his attention to discretion and fidelity keeps him in the confidence of his peers with whom he must navigate a constantly jolted routine that finds beatings, murders, entrapment, and betrayal everyday occurrences.

For those punished, Santos chronicles unflinchingly rape, extortion, corruption, intimidation, and chaos. He moves as his time has, from city to county to high-security to medium-level federal penitentiaries and now lower-security camps. He shows how there's no use for what the British term an "Ordinary Decent Criminal" to reform. Yet, the "correctional officers" boast strong unions and political clout. Santos cites Thomas Jefferson's dictum that the government should exist to serve the people's needs; for prisons, "the mantra has become to preserve the security of the institution." (281)

Although there's incredible waste of resources, the boomtowns created by prison construction, and the contractors who alongside the guards need never to justify their expenditures or results to we who foot the bill mean that as Santos concludes: "This cycle of failure continues as if in a closed loop, justifying the need for more prisons and all the billions of dollars in expenditures that keep the system alive." He adds: "Its growth depends strictly upon a culture of failure and high recidivism." (290)

Santos for the federal institutions shows how with time, many guards and prisoners usually relax their defenses. The danger, all can't forget, is that confidence that may be given may backfire, fatally or violently or legally. This heightens the resentment ticked off in his wardens and jailers by Santos' earnest efforts to better himself by his writing and his website promoting coping skills (some for sale) to inmates, parolees, and their families. By his enterprise and enterpreneurship, he seeks to improve others by his own advice, gleaned on the inside for when he gets outside "the fences." He seeks, and why not, to make a long-term career out of his career that's consumed nearly his entire adult life. He's feared for his hard-won knowledge, and foiled by administration when he tries to earn his doctorate. Contrasted with less-educated, less-motivated neighbors behind bars, Santos shows the threat that an informed inmate presents to a system bent on breaking the prisoner and keeping him cowed. Yet, the alternative's more deadly. The skill with which inmates, perhaps not when they entered but as they endure, learn to bend the rules like they bend a papier-maché bolus into a shank, can and will kill.

Santos' estimates that 6.6% of our nation's residents will be in a state or federal prison at some point. (xiii) That's twenty million Americans. Bloated budgets and "throw away the key" revenge continue to confront those doing hard time in a hard state under a hard regime determined to punish rather than reform, and to exact vengeance rather than to right past wrongs. (Posted to Amazon US 8-12-09.)


Layne said...

I never accused you of being a dilettante. It is remarkable to me the real mastery you have in an enormous range of subjects. I am proud to have inspired your current exploration of the correctional system, which is copied and sent to prison where it will be disseminated and give comfort.

Fionnchú said...

I know, half in jest I spoke above. Thanks for the opportunity to channel some of my omniverous reading into a practical source, in some tiny way, I hope of benefit to those who would be the perfect audience for this book. You're the inspiration for my efforts, after all. xxx me

Carole Santos said...


Inside: LBBIA was written by my husband, Michael. I've just found your review, and I will mail a printed copy to him. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

To answer your question about royalties on his published work--Michael is prohibited from receiving any compensation for his writing/publishing. All royalties he would be entitled to in free society are signed away to others. In other words, he receives nothing for his magnificent contributions to society through his work and efforts to educate citizens about the realities of America's broken prison system. I think that makes him an even more magnificent human being--he contributes for the betterment of an enlightened society.

You can follow Michael's daily journal at and He just submitted his next manuscript, Earning Freedom, for publication.

Best regards,
Carole Santos